By Cathy O’Neil
What if humans could upload all the great classics of literature to their brains, without having to go through the arduous process of reading? Wonderful and leveling as that may seem, it’s a prospect that I’m not sure we should readily embrace.
A while ago, I listened to an interview with futurist Ray Kurzweil on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show StarTalk. Kurzweil described (starting at 10:30) how our brains might someday interface directly with non-biological forms of intelligence, possibly with the help of nano-bots that travel through our capillaries.
Given how much faster this interface would be than regular reading, he went on, we’d be able to consume novels like “The Brothers Karamazov” in moments, rather than the current rather clumsy form of ingestion known as reading, which, he said, “could take months.”
At this point Tyson interjected: Are you saying we could just upload “War and Peace”? Yes, Kurzweil answered: “We will connect to neocortical hierarchies in cloud with pre-loaded knowledge.”
This snippet of conversation has baffled and fascinated me ever since. I confess that I do not know a lick about neuroscience. But just knowing something about reading makes the above story implausible, if not alarming.
Kurzweil’s choice of book has a special meaning to me. I’ve read “The Brothers Karamazov” multiple times, the first when I was 15 years old, a tragically depressed suburban nerd girl. It was a revelation, it gave my life meaning. The book changed me. Then I read it twice more, first in my 20s and then in my 30s. Each time it was influential, but strangely seemed like a completely different book. I’m due for a fourth reading now, and I’m sure that I won’t even agree with my former selves as to who is the main character, never mind the point of the book.
From my perspective, the learning that we do when we read a book has little to do with knowledge — what would a pre-loaded version of “The Brothers Karamazov” constitute? — and everything to do with responding emotionally and morally to the story. As I’ve become older, I forgive hypocrisies more quickly, and I identify with decay more readily. I understand spiritual conflict but I’m not alarmed by it. Thus the book itself is different each time it’s read by a different version of me.
I’m not sure what Kurzweil thinks when he says our computer minds won’t need to bother to read the book, and I want to give him and his other futurist computer-brain friends some credit. They surely mean more than having the text of the book itself available to us, or even memorized. That wouldn’t represent knowledge. It must be something deeper, a representation of the book possibly as a narrative, or maybe a movie. But again, if we have access only to that movie, it doesn’t represent the same learning that would come through reading and experiencing the book.
There are only two more possibilities left, at least in my limited biological brain. First, that the “true meaning” of the book is codified once and for all by a computer, and is inserted into our long-term memories. This would inevitably be unsatisfying, because it would mean that if I “read it again” I’d actually experience the same exact thing. Also, whose experience gets codified?
Finally, there’s the possibility that the book’s true meaning would change depending on the state of my brain — that the interface would look into my mind, see and understand my patience with hypocrisy and spiritual conflict, and then transform the story accordingly. In which case, every time I uploaded that book or any other, I’d experience a different story. I doubt this is possible, and in any case I would find the lack of active participation creepy. That said, I’d definitely pay a monthly subscription to try it out.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
See online: What If We Could Upload Books to Our Brains?